Michigan’s oil spill: a scientist gets sucked in

By Maya Fischhoff, Great Lakes Echo

When a pipeline burst in a wetland near Marshall, MI, last July, no one caught it for 12 hours. By that time, 20,000 barrels of oil had leaked from the pipeline into the wetland and were moving down the Kalamazoo River.

Steve Hamilton is an Michigan State University professor of zoology based at Kellogg Biological Station, and president of the Kalamazoo River Watershed Council. He became deeply involved in efforts to clean up the oil, and described the experience to a packed audience at a recent seminar sponsored by the university’ Center for Water Sciences.

As president of the Watershed Council, Hamilton joined the science team formed early on by the EPA, state agencies, and Enbridge, the oil company responsible for the spill. He was the only academic or non-profit representative on the team, which analyzed response plans and made clean-up recommendations. “We met every day or every other day in Marshall for a couple of months.”

The ruptured pipeline, 30 inches wide and buried 10 feet deep, had been carrying crude oil from the Alberta Tar Sands. The rupture’s cause isn’t known, though Hamilton speculates that the pipeline, built in 1969, was under strain from the tar sand oil, which is piped at higher pressure and temperature than conventional oil.

Hamilton provided a research-oriented, and occasionally unpopular, perspective on the science team. He argued for leaving part of the contaminated area untouched, to study the impact of the spill. That idea was “a non-starter,” he said. “There was a huge political imperative to get the oil out.”

The team decided to clean up the oil left on land by removing all contaminated material – stripping soil and plant matter and taking it to the landfill. Hamilton had suggested an alternative approach: adding nutrients like nitrogen, which stimulate microbial activity that could help degrade the oil. But state agencies were afraid that nutrients might negatively impact water quality.

The EPA was particularly cautious in its approach because of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, which had occurred just months earlier. “EPA didn’t want to discuss [detergents] at all,” Hamilton recalls. “They were so scarred from the Gulf.”

The clean-up removed more than 90 percent of the oil, at the estimated “astronomical” cost of $550 million, which includes litigation and other expenses.

The clean-up has now moved to remediation and restoration stages, and state agencies have replaced the EPA as the leader. The science team hasn’t met since this change because state agencies don’t have enough time to organize meetings, Hamilton said. “You’re probably aware that our state agencies have been trimmed to the bone.” As a result, “lots of things are going on without any [scientific advice] from outside the environmental agencies, which I think is unfortunate.”

Lasting effects of the spill will be hard to measure. Hamilton has been advising agencies trying to quantify damage to ecosystems and wildlife to get compensation from Enbridge. Although wildlife have clearly been exposed to toxic substances in the oil, it’s hard to prove impacts because only part of the river was damaged and animals are “always on the move,” explained Hamilton.

Peoples’ perception of the Kalamazoo River, which was already scarred by previous pollution, has also been affected by the spill. “The river has long had a stigma,” said Hamilton, “and we’ve worked for years to convince people that it’s really a pretty nice place….So this is just another blow to the reputation of the river.”

Since the spill, Hamilton has contributed to a Natural Resources Defense Council report arguing that tar sands oil in pipelines require more attention – for example, a supplemental Environmental Impact Statement. But he doesn’t see the Enbridge oil spill experience as impacting his research. “This was something that blew up in my backyard,” says Hamilton, “So I got sucked into it.”

© 2011, Great Lakes Echo, Michigan State University Knight Center for Environmental Journalism.

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